Star Axis – A Theatre in the Sky

Sculptor Charles Ross' 11-story earth/sky and naked-eye observatory
lies 80 miles outside of Santa Fe
.

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Star Axis remote is both an Earth/Sky sculpture and a naked eye observatory. Presently under construction atop a small mesa where the Sangre de Cristo mountains meet the eastern plains—80 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico—the work is now nearing completion. Here the powerful spirit of the land gives one the feeling of standing at the boundary between earth and sky.

At its outside dimensions, Star Axis will be 11 stories high and a tenth of a mile across. The work allows the viewer to walk through layers of celestial time, making directly visible the 26,000 year cycle in the earth's changing alignment with the stars. — Charles Ross

Star Axis under constructionCharles Ross is a sculptor. His work-in-process, Star Axis, is, literally, cosmic in scope and as such is perhaps incomprehensible to some, an aphrodisiac or intoxication to others! The name, Star Axis, refers to the axis upon which our Earth rotates and to a phenomenon called precession (more about that later). The concept behind Star Axis originates from two celestial phenomena and a cosmic cycle which has existed for thousands of years.

First, despite the common assumption that the Earth's axis points directly at Polaris, the alignment is not exact. This misalignment causes Polaris to appear to move in a tiny arc. Second, the Earth's spin in space is not stable, but wobbles like a top in a great 26,000 year cycle. Astronomers call this cycle precession. The slow wobble gradually shifts the Earth's axis toward and then away from Polaris. As the axis points to other regions in the sky, Polaris turns around the pole in ever-widening circles of sky, eventually relinquishing its place as the North Star. Each of these circles can be seen as a celestial marker in human history. The movement is so slow that the changing relationship of Polaris to the Earth appears invisible to casual observations. Star Axis makes the wobble visible.

Star Axis

At the center of the Star Axis site, an inverted cone has been carved deep into the capstone and lined with rock masonry. Within this cone a stainless steel tunnel will rise eleven stories and be placed exactly parallel to the Earth's axis. The tunnel focuses on the celestial pole in order to sight and frame the motions of Polaris. Inside the tunnel, stairs rise to the top of the sculpture, emerging above the mesa through a granite pyramid whose shape is derived from the seasonal angles of the Sun.

Visitors will enter the tunnel from the bottom of the cone and walk up the stairs in perfect alignment with the Earth's axis and its outward extension to the stars. Wherever one stands within the tunnel, the circle of the sky framed by the opening precisely represents Polaris' orbit for a particular period of history. Because precession is a cyclical process, any observation made within the tunnel represents a view of the past, as well as the future. Dates engraved in each stair identify the years. Thus, the visitor can stand in the orbit of Polaris as it existed for Nefertiti, or for Confucius, or for Leonardo da Vinci or as it was in the Stone Age and will be again 13,000 years in the future. The initial image in the tunnel represents the present. However, when the participant reaches the top of the shaft, the view simulates the largest arc Polaris makes in both 11,000 BC and 15,000 AD!

To find the right setting for Star Axis, in 1971 I began an intensive four-year search throughout the Southwest. In addition to the technical requirements, there was another more mysterious quality needed that I could not describe at the time. Somehow, I kept returning to the mesas of New Mexico. Later, I realized that the powerful spirit of this land gave me a feeling of standing on the boundary between Earth and Sky. Here both elements have equal weight and you can see the curvature of the Earth as you look out to the ocean of light that plays across the plains.

Only an hour and a half from Santa Fe, Star Axis is also at the boundary between civilization and wilderness. The site is isolated, yet readily accessible. A pristine landscape surrounded by large ranches where the dark night's sky lets you see the outline of the Milky Way. One does not have to reject the modern world to remember one's being in the stars.

I have been working on this project for 22 years. In some ways, it had to take this much time because each element of Star Axis—every shape, every measure, every angle—was first discovered in the stars and then brought down into the land. Star geometry anchored in earth and rock. It's continually evolving. Star Axis has to feel as if it has grown from the Earth—that it is not imposed, but found in place.

Construction progress from day-to-day, or year-to-year, may seem slow. The magnificence of the Star Axis landscape distracts viewers so that progress is difficult to comprehend. Consequently, the developments at the site can be "seen" most clearly in photographs. The slow process of building and documenting the construction of Star Axis mirrors the slow evolution of Polaris' precession.

Star Axis provides a place of heightened focus where we can experience the movement of the Universe in relation to ourselves. It suggests a time when Art, Science and the spiritual are joined again in a creative vision of the Cosmos.

Partial funding for the project has come from the New Mexico Arts Division, Santa Fe Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to private foundations and numerous individual contributors. Completion of the "star tunnel" will require approximately $200,000; completion of the entire Star Axis project will require nearly $800,000.

How You Can be Involved in Star Axis

Elements of Star Axis can be "purchased," or underwritten. Each stair in the magnificent Star Tunnel, which leads one through the 26,000-year celestial cycle, can be underwritten or sponsored for $10,000.

Visiting Star Axis

Star Axis is still under construction and generally closed to the public. During the summer months we occasionally invite visitors to the site, but we cannot guarantee that we can accomodate all visitors. If you are interested in seeing the site please e-mail info@staraxis.org . When visiting we request a $50 per person donation. Donations for Star Axis are being received by the College of Santa Fe, a nonprofit educational organization (501c3). We also ask that you give plenty of advance notice and that you be flexible regarding the exact time and day you would like to visit.

When Star Axis is complete it will be open to the public by reservation.


Thanks to Charles Ross; Joseph Traugott, Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe; and Kerry Benson, Former Director of the Santa Fe Art Institute remote site

Photos by Charles Ross and Mark Nohl

1. Star Axis construction 1989. Photo by Charles Ross

2. Star Trails A panoramic view of the north celestial pole shows circumpolar star trails framed by the Star Axis. Photo by Mark Nohl

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 8


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RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED January 27, 2009

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